1 March 2024

Should Canberra become an 'International Wetland City'?

| Dione David
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Lake Burley Griffin

Canberra’s artificial lakes contribute a great deal to its biodiversity. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

For most, the term “wetlands” evokes images of long-legged fowls loping through natural waters, surrounded by reeds and abundant insects. In reality, anything from an artificial lake to the miniature swamps that rise up from the ground in wet weather, can be classified as wetlands.

And while often viewed as quite dry, Canberra is in fact covered in them. They’re essential to the environment and, in some circles, to our global standing.

University of Canberra researcher and conservationist Professor Peter Bridgewater has spent most of his academic and professional career focused on wetlands, which he says play a more important role in sequestering carbon than forests.

He says Canberra should explore the possibility of becoming an “International Wetland City” under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

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In 1974 Australia became the first country not only to sign, but to ratify the Ramsar Convention, designating the Northern Territory’s Couburg Peninsula as the first “Wetland of International Importance”. The nation has since been an important player in how the Convention has evolved to better recognise the diversity of wetlands.

“When people think of wetlands they think of Kakadu, Couburg and other large areas of natural wetlands but actually, the most important functioning wetlands are in urban areas – and increasingly so as the world urbanises,” Prof Bridgewater says.

“So the Convention came up with the International Wetland City title, an international accolade designed to encourage countries to nominate cities with substantial wetlands. The idea was to enhance conservation and management and to raise the local population’s awareness of the important role it could play in looking after wetlands.”

Man inspecting wetland grass

Professor Peter Bridgewater thinks Canberra could be a strong candidate as an International Wetland City. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Currently the country with the most International Wetland Cities is China – a case study ideally positioned to make the point.

“This is a heavily urbanised country, and its government has identified the International Wetland City label as a good way to get the local population to recognise their role in looking after these valuable assets. Don’t pollute, don’t let your dogs chase wildlife, behave in an environmentally responsible way, etc,” he says.

“This also helps spotlight something called ‘micro-wetlands’ – which we have in abundance in Canberra. These small patches of wetlands aren’t even always wet, but are important in managing water flow, preventing floods and conserving water in dry times.”

In the ACT, the environmental significance of created wetlands – from the ponds in Mawson and Dickson to Lake Burley Griffin – cannot be overstated.

In cities, the biggest challenge to maintaining the health of these waterways is managing pollutants that run off roads, get into drains and contribute to problems such as blue-green algae.

“There is a lot of research happening on urban wetlands and good work is being done, but we need more ways to bring this to the public attention,” Prof Bridgewater says.

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Awareness of the importance of wetlands across Canberra varies. The significance of the Jerrabomberra wetlands, built along the flood plains of the Molonglo River, is relatively well known, given its status as a base for the annual migration of the Latham’s Snipe between Australia and Japan.

But precious few are considered for their environmental contributions.

“You see obvious wetlands that are wet all the time. Most are artificial lakes in town centres like Tuggeranong, Belconnen and Gungahlin, and those built along creek lines to help manage water flow. The fact that they’re artificial doesn’t take away from the fact that they support biodiversity,” Prof Bridgewater says.

“But the same goes for the micro-wetlands that pop up when it rains a lot. On designated reserve hills you find little suspended wetlands that come to life when the water level reaches a certain point and breaks the surface, like a small spring. It’s more like seepage, but plants and animals that have been inert in the soil burst into life, and form an integral part of the ecosystem.

“They’re like stepping stones around the landscape for plants and animals – and if one dries up, there’s always somewhere that’s wet. It’s a critical part of the landscape matrix of Canberra as a city.”

The Wetland City Accreditation scheme has now resulted in a total of 43 cities in 17 countries recognised by the Ramsar Convention – and Canberra ought to look to the Federal Government to make a nomination. But there will be some work to do first.

“I see Canberra as a really good candidate for International Wetlands City accreditation, but if we want to submit our wetlands of importance for the independent committee to evaluate, we need to develop a long-term plan,” Prof Bridgewater says.

“Where are we going with our wetlands system? How can we better manage these important resources?”

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GrumpyGrandpa6:11 pm 03 Mar 24

Fat chance of being able to become an International Wetland City, when the ACT
Government hasn’t been able to control the blue-green in Lake Tuggeranong for seemingly ever.

The first thing we have to to stop the algae is to stop doing so much mowing. All those tons of clippings from traffic islands, roadside verges, parks, etc end up in the drains and cause the problem.

The lake is a lake, not a wetland. Whatever academics are tying to bend the word to mean, the core meaning is pretty much right there in the word: land that is wet. If Canberra wants to congratulate itself on being a wetland city, do the work first: rework the margins of LBG to become much more graded habitats than the abrupt deepish water to suddenly mowed grass margin around much of it now; rework the long concrete urban storm channels into a more meandering series of ponds, soaks and reedbeds; rework the degraded gully-eroded and denuded creek beds in outer suburbia into similarly far more complex environments. And then, after actually earning the title of wetland city, only then apply for that formal recognition. More humility and diligent work, less hubris.

You know it’s not just the silly old academics who have a different understanding to you of the term wetland but also silly old countries and silly old cities across the world. But if you want to have your own term then you’re perfectly entitled to do so.

Bit triggered there mate.

The water table is not far beneath my house. Some of my bigger fruit trees got through the drought, lush and green, without being watered. The cherry tree gave me 21 kilos of fruit one year in the drought. It loved the drought, with water for the roots down below and dry up top. (Hates the recent wet years.) When the land was prepared for the house, what was found looked like an old filled in pond, and the house had to have modifications. Likely in the earlier days of Canberra the land was leveled to build houses, and the pond buried. During these wet years I have had what I regard as wetland plants come up. A drain is on my neighbours side of the fence over the storm water, and that was probably put in decades ago. Where the old pond might have been, gets a layer of water after heavy rain, but with drainage, quickly clears after. The grass/reed plants I have planted there are doing very well.
I have looked at old aerial photographs, but as they are in black and white, it’s hard to be sure what I am looking at, but I am guessing the water might be flowing towards another open mown grass area, some distance away which a patch of can stay green in wet years, and the two closest planted gum trees (last time I checked) were the biggest in the street. Maybe water is flowing towards the local creek.

Stephen Saunders9:28 am 03 Mar 24

Thanks, nice idea, although perhaps trying a bit too hard. Why not just extend the small-scale or localised wetlands instead, there aren’t that many of them, and some (if not all) are quite successful and well liked.

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